After 13 years of slow orbital disintegration, a legacy satellite will finally be put out of its misery by plunging into Earth’s atmosphere, where it will burn up into small fragments.
The second European remote sensing satellite, ERS-2, is underway programmed for atmospheric reentry in mid-February, ending a 16-year mission that revolutionized our understanding of climate change and how we observe Earth from space, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced this week.
ERS-2 was launched in 1995, four years behind its sister satellite, ERS-1, to measure ocean surface temperatures and winds at sea. At the time, both were the most sophisticated Earth observation satellites ever built and collected groundbreaking data on declining polar ice, changes in land surfaces, sea level rise, ocean warming, and chemistry. atmospheric, according to ESA. That data helped scientists begin to understand the impact humans were having on planet Earth.
In 2011, ERS-2 completed its mission and ESA began reducing its altitude from 487 miles (785 kilometers) to 356 miles (573 kilometers) to avoid colliding with other satellites in orbit. Over the past 13 years, the retired satellite has been slowly dragged downward, and its altitude has naturally decreased over time due primarily to solar activity.
At last, the satellite has reached a point of no return and is expected to be completely annihilated in about a week when it re-enters through Earth’s atmosphere, subsequently burning up in the process.
ESA’s Space Debris Office will follow the event and provide any necessary updates. Although the reentry of ERS-2 will not be controlled, the space agency recently experimented with guided reentry of its Aeolus satellite to minimize the risk of damage during its descent. Other satellites are equipped with controlled reentry technology that deorbits them to lower altitudes so that the impact site of potential debris is within a controlled area. ERS-2 is old and therefore its fall to Earth will be less graceful, but space agencies are working on developing new ways to help keep our planet’s orbit safe and sustainable.
As we officially say goodbye to ERS-2, we must remember that the satellite inspired the Earth observation satellites that came after it, such as the Envisat mission, the MetOp weather satellites, and the Copernicus Sentinels.
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